Whatcom is the original name for the city of Bellingham. The name of Bellingham is derived from the bay on which the city is situated. George Vancouver, who visited the area in June 1792, named the bay for Sir William Bellingham, the controller of the storekeeper's account of the Royal Navy. Prior to Euro-American settlement, this was in the homeland of Coast Salish peoples of the Lummi and neighboring tribes. The first Caucasian settlers reached the area in 1854. In 1858, the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush caused thousands of miners, storekeepers, and scalawags to head north from California. Whatcom grew overnight from a small northwest mill town to a bustling seaport, the basetown for the Whatcom Trail, which led to the Fraser Canyon goldfields, used in open defiance of colonial Governor James Douglas's edict that all entry to the gold colony be made via Victoria, British Columbia.
Coal was mined in the area from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. It was Henry Roeder who had discovered coal off the northeastern shore of Bellingham Bay, and in 1854 a group of San Francisco investors established the Bellingham Bay Coal Company. The mine extended to hundreds of miles of tunnels as deep as 1200 feet. It ran southwest to Bellingham Bay, on both sides of Squalicum Creek, an area of about one square mile. At its peak in the 1920s, the mine employed some 250 miners digging over 200,000 tons of coal annually. It was closed in 1955.
Bellingham was officially incorporated on November 4, 1903 as a result of the incremental consolidation of four towns initially situated around Bellingham Bay during the final decades of the 19th Century. Whatcom is today's "Old Town" area and was founded in 1852. Sehome was an area of downtown founded in 1854. Bellingham was further south near Boulevard Park, founded in 1853; while Fairhaven was a large commercial district with its own harbor, also founded in 1853.